After a year filled with non-stop national security crises, the question is: Can anyone predict chaos in the future? The answer is, sort of.
Every four years, the National Intelligence Council - the arm of the Intelligence Community tasked with developing long-term outlooks - releases its Global Trends report. It’s an unclassified publication that uses open source information gathering techniques to plot out the world 15 to 20 years out.
In 2000, the NIC released the Global Trends 2015 report to figure out how major technological, geopolitical and demographic trends at the turn of the millennium would shape the years to come. The next one is expected to come out in 2016 and will predict the world of 2035.
David Gordon, former policy planning director for the State Department and one of the main authors of the Global Trends 2015 report, emphasized that it wasn’t meant to be a set of predictions, or even a model, but rather “explorations, likely and potential changes” in the world of the future.
“We knew that all sorts of stuff was going to happen, and then what you were trying to do is, understand beneath all of that, what are some of the big things going on. Obviously, once something very big like [like the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan] happens, the world changes,” Gordon told Defense One.
Of course, the world circa-2000 was a very different place. This was before the 9/11 attacks and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. While cyber-security is now a major threat, many people were just getting over the preparations for the Y2K computer bug.
The whole Global Trends 2015 report is worth reading, but Defense One decided to look at some of the things that the report got right – and wrong – about conflict in 2015.
“The fundamental thing that we got right was the notion that China was going to become a ‘big Kahuna’ in terms of global change,” Gordon said. “That is something that everybody now takes for granted, but in 2000, that was not what was out there.”
Global Trends 2015 suggested that the rise of China’s military would start disrupting U.S. military power in the Asia-Pacific and warned of a potential for a war over Taiwan and territories in the South China Sea. But it also made many other calls:
“China will be exploiting advanced weapons and production technologies acquired from abroad—Russia, Israel, Europe, Japan and the United States—that will enable it to integrate naval and air capabilities against Taiwan and potential adversaries in the South China Sea.”
Indeed, that has been the case. A 2010 report published by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency detailed the ways in which China has been acquiring those types of weapons technologies. There’s also this:
“In the event of a peaceful resolution of the Taiwan issue, some of China’s military objectives—such as protecting the sea lanes for Persian Gulf oil—could become more congruent with those of the United States. Nevertheless, as an emerging regional power, China would continue to expand its influence without regard to U.S. interests.”
Though there hasn’t been a full resolution on the issue of Taiwan yet, China docked two ships at a port in Iran as a sign of interest in the strategically important Strait of Hormuz, Reuters reported in September.
Another scenario involving China deploying nuclear tipped missiles:
“China by 2015 will have deployed tens to several tens of missiles with nuclear warheads targeted against the United States, mostly more survivable land- and sea-based mobile missiles. It also will have hundreds of shorter-range ballistic and cruise missiles for use in regional conflicts. Some of these shorter-range missiles will have nuclear warheads; most will be armed with conventional warheads.
In early December, Bloomberg reported that China was preparing to deploy nuclear missiles aboard its submarines. There’s also the ongoing development of Beijing’s missile programs and hypersonic weapons.
After the invasion of Crimea in March and the instability in eastern Ukraine, there were fears that Russia was becoming a resurgent power that would counter U.S. interests around the world. However the past few weeks have seen Russia’s economy face severe difficulties, including a slip into recession and a plunging Ruble. Global Trends 2015 noted Moscow’s potentially disruptive influence in former Soviet states like Ukraine predicted it would face internal troubles by 2015:
“By 2015, Russia will be challenged even more than today to adjust its expectations for world leadership to the dramatically reduced resources it will have to play that role. The quality of Russian governance is an open question as is whether the country will be able to make the transition in a manner that preserves rather than upsets regional stability.”
Throughout the 2000s, Russia’s government has been buoyed by high gas prices. Still, Gordon said that the fundamentals behind Russia’s power haven’t changed dramatically over the past 15 years.
“I think Russia has had a lot of ups and downs…but I think Russia’s threat for a while has been a great power in decline, and it continues to be, and that’s what we suggested in the report.”
After the U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998 and the attack on the USS Cole in Yemen in 2000, combating terrorism became a growing concern for the intelligence community. The report suggested that terrorists based out of the Middle East would target U.S. diplomatic and military facilities. Of course, 9/11 changed the course of U.S. foreign policy for the coming decade. Even then, Global Trends 2015 didn’t just forecast the spread of terrorism, but how these groups would proliferate:
“States with poor governance; ethnic, cultural, or religious tensions; weak economies and porous borders will be prime breeding grounds for terrorism. In such states, domestic groups will challenge the entrenched government, and transnational networking seeking safe havens.
At the same time, the trend away from state supported political terrorism and toward more diverse, free-wheeling, transnational networks – enabled by information technology – will continue. Some of the states that actively sponsor terrorism or terrorist groups today may decrease or even cease their support by 2015 as a result of regime changes, rapprochement with neighbors or the conclusion that terrorism has become counterproductive. But weak states also could drift toward cooperation with terrorists, creating de-facto new state supporters.”
While al-Qaeda was the main threat after 9/11, the world was shocked this year by how effectively the Islamic State (also known as ISIS or ISIL) took control of large parts of Iraq and Syria. Gordon said “there was a strong view [within the Intelligence Community] that the impact of the Internet was going to be enabling for these [types of] organizations.”
“ISIS has just taken it to a whole new level, there’s no question about that,” he said.
In 1998, the Clinton administration launched Operation Desert Fox, the mission to take out Iraqi military targets after President Saddam Hussein cut his cooperation with U.N. weapons inspectors. But in 2000, the report suggested that Iraq might be able to do much more by 2015:
“Iraq’s ability to obtain WMD will be influenced, in part, by the degree to which the UN Security Council can impede development or procurement over the next 15 years. Under some scenarios, Iraq could test an ICBM capable of delivering nuclear-sized payloads to the United States before 2015; foreign assistance would affect the capabilities of the missile and the time it became available. Iraq could also develop a nuclear weapon during this period.”
The later invasion of Iraq in 2003 would find that an active WMD program did not exist.
“Iran sees its short- and medium-range missiles as deterrents, as force-multiplying weapons of war, primarily with conventional warheads, and as options for delivering biological, chemical, and eventually nuclear weapons. Iran could test an IRBM or land attack cruise missile by 2004 and perhaps even an ICBM or space launch vehicle as early as 2001.”
Even with heavy international sanctions, Iran has been testing a variety of missiles for the better part of the decade. Setting aside the recent diplomatic breakthrough on Iran’s nuclear weapons program, the International Institute for Strategic Studies said in November 2013 that the development of the country’s ICBMs were becoming a “distant prospect. “
Though North Korea’s recent hack of Sony’s servers is dominating the headlines, a bigger worry has long been the reclusive country’s ongoing nuclear weapons program.
“A unified Korea with a significant US military presence may become a regional military power. For the next 10 to 15 years, however, knowledgeable observers suggest that the process of unification will consume South Korea’s energies and resources. Absent unification, North Korea’s WMD capabilities will continue to cloud regional stability. P’yongyang probably has one, possibly two, nuclear weapons. It has developed medium range missiles for years and has tested a three stage space launch vehicle. P’yonyang may improve the accuracy, range, and payload capabilities of its Taepo Dong-2 ICBM, deploy variants, or develop more capable systems. North Korea could have a few to several Taepo Dong-2 type missiles deployed by 2005.”
“One of the hardest things to do in these reports is to merge technological change and geopolitical trends,” Gordon said. It’s no surprise that U.S. computer networks are becoming a bigger target for states and non-state actors alike. In 2000, the question wasn’t if an attack would happen, but when:
“Increasing reliance on computer networks is making critical US infrastructures more attractive as targets. Computer network operations today offer new options for attacking the United States within its traditional continental sanctuary—potentially anonymously and with selective effects. Nevertheless, we do not know how quickly or effectively such adversaries as terrorists or disaffected states will develop the tradecraft to use cyber warfare tools and technology, or, in fact, whether cyber warfare will ever evolve into a decisive combat arm.”
There were also concerns that adversaries would use high-tech weapons against U.S. forces abroad:
“In addition to threatening the U.S. national infrastructure, adversaries will seek to attack U.S. military capabilities through electronic warfare, psychological operations, denial and deception and the use of new technologies such as directed energy weapons or electromagnetic pulse weapons. The primary purpose would be to deny U.S. forces information superiority, to prevent U.S. weapons from working and to undermine U.S. domestic support for U.S. actions.”
No adversary has used directed energy weapons yet against the U.S. military, but that doesn’t mean development in this area has stopped.